On “I Took A Pill In Ibiza”
I really like hooks, I guess.
Today the nominees for the 2017 Grammys were announced, including much of the expected fare (Lemonade, Views, Coloring Book) some weird choices (the Sturgill Simpson album, 25, “Exchange” by Bryson Tiller) and lots of more middling artists and albums that, while I could rail against, probably make a lot more sense from the perspective of Grammy voting members and the broader (read: not just countercultural) music industry. Most notably to me, though, was the inclusion of Mike Posner’s unlikely world-beater “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” as a nominee for Song of the Year.
I remember the first time I heard “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” in my shitty apartment near the end of winter quarter of my third year. It’s not a very subtle song — the SeeB remix (which is the version people actually know, and, in my mind, the only one I’ll really listen to) isolates Posner’s vocals and lightly processes his voice on the first line, before gradually adding more and more signifiers of tropical house, all smeared synth tones that sound like they’re sinking Posner in amniotic fluid and tasteful if derivative snap rhythms that eventually crescendo to a recognizable THUMP — not a bass drop, per se, but a chorus definitely, not unlike that found in Jack Ü and Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now” but without any of the sneering, hip dissonance. Musically, it’s nonconfrontational at best and tired at worst, scanning like (and read by many music writers as) the last vestiges of trop house before people in 2016 decided to just listen to dancehall rips instead.
But the lyrics — oh, the lyrics — and their relationship to the music change the equation entirely. It’s not because they’re genius: they’re not, really, and it’d probably also be a stretch to call them “poetic,” especially if Leonard Cohen is the bar you’re trying to clear. But they slice deep anyway, against all one’s efforts to ignore them: “I took a pill in Ibiza,” it begins — ok dude, shut the fuck up already, we’ve heard a million oneslike this before — before going on to “to show Avicii I was cool.” Again, not subtle, of course. But it’s bold, and honest, and most importantly self-aware in a specific, funny way. It goes on like this for a while, warning listeners away from the life of empty, meaningless fame Posner led after the one-time success of his previous few songs. It’s tragic, sure, but more importantly, by pairing it with the “nonconfrontational” trop house that SeeB provide (the original song was accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar) — “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” locks into place with euphoria building just as the lyrics get more and more depressing: call it the “Semi-Charmed Life” Maneuver or something. And by lilting back and forth like this, “Ibiza” suddenly coheres as perhaps the most succinct and even kind rebuke of not just “EDM” or drugs or something dumb and easy like that, but of fame itself, and of, I’d argue, the need to focus on The Authentic Artist Guy as the center of the song, making its case both lyrically and musically (the real “protagonist” of the song slowly becomes the rhythm and the persistent synthesizer melody sandwiched between the bass and the treble, as Posner gets sucked into the swirl). In its own way, I think, it’s serendipitously one of the best examples in 2016 of the collaboration, collectivity, and those ephemeral moments of equity that lie at the core of the fractured dream of pop music—and I mean Pop Music, spectacle and all.
By now, it’s much less of a secret than in, say, the early 2000s that the world of this capital-P Pop Music (think Ariana, Fifth Harmony, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, etc, along with more “who?” artists like Zara Larsson and Dua Lipa) is supported by songwriting teams, topline writers, promotional material, et cetera et cetera, all in service of what John Seabrook called “the song machine” in his book of the same name. Seabrook wasn’t critical necessarily in his book, but he did seem to resist “enjoyment,” as if succumbing to the pleasure of The Song Machine was somehow immoral or dirty. Knowing that, then, it might be somewhat of a surprise that pop (especially influenced by the aforementioned [often Scandinavian] songwriting teams) has acquired enough separate signifiers to be treated as a distinct genre, with its own set of value systems and fandoms. Blogs like Popjustice seem to embody much of the ethos and value system — openness about “the industry,” lack of aversion from “cleanness” as an aesthetic choice, unpretentious dismissal of “meaning” or “lasting value” in favor of “just like, could you chill out and listen and not be so sad?”
Not all those who end up listening to this “genre” take it seriously (meaning, more directly, that they don’t maintain an awareness of release cycles and who’s got buzz in the blogosphere), since at the end of the day, the music is Actual Pop, not music that attempts to create more DIY or authentic simulacra of pop: groups heavily plugged by Popjustice and co. regularly penetrate the American market, whether it’s because of this fandom or not, and the love for Ariana Grande is no less for her having essentially conquered the industry — if anything it’s only grown. As such, this type of fandom operates differently from that of, say, noise music, or minimal techno: rather than searching for the margins for a sense of belonging, it takes the affective “undeniability” of “hookiness” and pop structure and carves a place for deep, cozy enjoyment within — a type of hiding in plain sight, as it were, of listening like an obsessive fan rather than as a critical evaluator. It’s undeniably ahistorical and problematic in its plastic tower of song, and yet somehow, it’s admirably utopian in its willingness to embrace simplicity for its own sake.
How, then, does “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” fit in to this? The song itself, as Posner wrote it, had no interest in the charts — indeed, in interviews Posner positions himself as a developing “artist,” rather than one who’s interested in Pop (maybe he’s aiming to be the next Paul Simon?). And the lyrics hardly seem apolitical or committed to “the hook” above all else when read on their own — they’re biting, sad, and overly committed to meaning in a lot of ways, especially with a chorus that reads, “all I know are sad songs.”
But SeeB are a part of the world of Pop (they’re form Norway, and they work with big names in the scene Tove Lo and Kiesza, too), and through their interpretation of “Ibiza” they damn near give that world a raison d’etre. They engage the lyrics on the level that they demand, never obfuscating them outright but every once in a while double-tracking or pitch-shifting a melody to fit a crescendo or a lull. A now-obligatory EDM chipmunk vocal chorus glides into Posner’s voice seamlessly during the chorus, a trick that still brings a smile each time it occurs. And a small, insistent *hey* leads off every instance of the chorus, just in case you didn’t know where the “start dancing part” is. It feels unoriginal, repetitive, lyrical, and perfect, almost bluesy in its own postmodern way. It’s a cyborg amalgamation, sonically and conceptually rhizomatic even as it comes through the pipeline of the structured, solidly conservative music biz. I love it, EDM chipmunk chorus and all.
The obvious critique of this is that as much as I can wax lyrical about this song, it’s still consumable crap with no original melodies or blah blah blah. Or, probably, that it’s neoliberal, or even fascist, unwilling to engage with more #authentic musics out of fear or culture industry complacency. But I can’t agree. How we choose to listen is almost as powerful a choice, if not more powerful, as what we choose to listen to — especially when the corporatization and dehumanization that pervades plenty of modern “tastemaker” culture has much of its roots in traps of authenticity, individualism and false counterculture. Bringing a critical and examined (albeit necessarily silly) fandom to an always-already corporatized space like that of Pop, aware of the little things in the industry and still infatuated with the feeling that the music brings, is a radical act. It’s one of the best ways to rid Pop of its more “othering” allure, and to demystify “the star” as a concept. (It’s also the first step towards demanding better ethics in those spaces, in cases like that of Kesha). “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” brings us closer than ever to that reality, without requiring one to dive straight into the deep end.
And most pointedly, if we’re going to see articles in 2016 on hardvapour in Tiny Mix Tapes or on lo-fi DJs like DJ Seinfeld in FACT Magazine, predicated on that very point — that maybe everything has been done before, in a way, and there’s something punk in a lack of overt, vaguely modernist impulses to “move forward” in music, in instead making music because of just how it really hits you— then “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” ought to take its place beside these smaller movements as a lovely step towards that willful deindividualization of popular music.
It does the work for you, really: story-wise, it’s a true, pithy story about the turnaround that happens once “fame” (the thing that’s built from those tired narratives) is suddenly demystified. It’s also a great reminder, in a way, that Mike Posner likes to make music because he likes to make music, not just for cash. You could make an authenticity argument that way, if you want. But more than even that, when remixed and distributed the way it is, so unpretentiously and haphazardly constructed (what even has the Grammy nom?? The remix or the original) it’s an embodiment of how to prioritize feeling over meaning, without sacrificing either, and a lesson in how those priorities can change in real time. First you hate it, think it’s trite crap. Then you notice it’s a little smarter than you might’ve thought, but it’s still self-indulgent beyond belief. Then you start tapping your foot along, and you get a bit sad/happy at the same time. Then, before you know it, Posner’s gone — and you’re just left singing along to the chipmunk chorus, taking part in and becoming a cog in the oh-so human song machine.